Thursday night, third period in Buffalo, the Rangers were up 2-1 and on their third power play of the night after the first two had failed. Fifty-eight seconds in, there was a faceoff in the offensive left-wing circle. The first unit, consisting of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox, stayed on, as they did for the first 1:41 of the man advantage.
Just over six minutes later, same score, the Blueshirts had their fourth power play of the match. The first unit kept the puck in the offensive zone, passing it around the perimeter, players more or less stationary. Three shots all from farther than 30 feet ensued, the Sabres cleared it after about 1:45, and the First Five finally went off the ice.
That’s four power plays, amounting to 8:00 of time, and the first unit played a collective 31:13 of the 40:00 available. That amounts to 78 percent of the time. That amounts to every one else, including second unit guys Pavel Buchnevich and Kaapo Kakko and fringe second-unit guys Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil, sitting on the bench watching.
Thursday was not an anomaly. Not by any stretch. It was just the latest in what has become more than just a pattern. Instead, it has become memorialized into the Rangers’ and coach David Quinn’s game plan. The first unit essentially stays on as long as it wants. It starts every man-advantage and finishes a majority of them, too.
In the 11 games since Panarin returned from his leave of absence, the first unit has played a collective 252:10 of the Rangers’ combined 343:40 of power-play time. That amounts to just over 73 percent. The Blueshirts are 9-for-40 for a healthy 22.5 percent during that span, but only 5-for-31 and 16.1 percent, subtracting their two blowouts against the no-mas Flyers.
The Rangers have gone 7-3-1 over the past 11 games to move onto the periphery of the playoff race with 20 games to go in their season. The next game is Saturday in Buffalo, to wrap up the two-game set. This trend hasn’t undone the Rangers, but it has kept young guns on the bench for chunks of games at a time.
And, I’m sorry, it reeks of entitlement. It’s obnoxious, kind of like when Phil Esposito used to stay on the side across from the bench so he couldn’t change for minutes at a time, back in the day. I do not understand why the coach allows it. Allowing it equates to endorsing it.
Over the past 11 games, the Rangers have played 68:44 with the man advantage. Panarin has been on for 52:10, Zibanejad for 51:46, Kreider for 50:57, Strome for 49:10 and Fox (who missed one game) for 48:07. That is crazy. Do you know what that means? It means 11:33 for Kakko, it means 7:45 for Lafreniere, and it means 6:06 for Chytil.
It means that the young guys, who might flourish with the touches and who might gain some confidence and traction that would carry over to five-on-five, essentially never get that opportunity. And yet we wonder why their production is so low.
The Rangers have scored 23 power-play goals this year. The first unit has scored 22 of them. The second unit’s only goal was scored in Philadelphia on Feb. 18, when Quinn dramatically juggled his combinations while keeping Zibanejad on the bench. The first unit in that instance consisted of Panarin, Strome, Kakko, Brendan Lemieux and Fox. The second unit featured Kreider, Buchnevich, Lafreniere, Colin Blackwell and Anthony Bitetto. Blackwell was the one to score.
The Blueshirts average 6:07 per game on the power play. That is most in the NHL. Panarin averages 4:39, Fox and Zibanejad 4:11, Kreider 3:54 and Strome 3:33. Conversely, that leaves 1:38 per for Lafreniere, 1:24 for Kakko and 0:54 for Chytil.
If there are periods with multiple power plays or penalty kills, it means that the players not on either specialty unit can sit for 8-to-10 minutes at a time. That means Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko.
But, you say, having the big guns on for the full 2:00 gives the Rangers their best chance of scoring and thus their best chance of winning. No, I say, it does not.
For the longer the first unit stays on, the more the returns diminish. Of the first unit’s 22 power-play goals, six were scored within the first 16 seconds of an advantage, 10 within the first 36 seconds, 18 within the first 59 seconds and 20 within the first 1:06.
That means two power-play goals over 36 games in the final 54 seconds of a power play.
That means when it’s time to change, the first unit needs to change. Come on, already.